The Life Gambit à la Benko

by Diana Mihajlova
7/15/2013 – Pal Benko (Hungarian: Benkö Pál) is, as 99% of our readers probably know, a legendary chess grandmaster, author, and composer of endgame studies and problems. He was born on July 15 1928, which made him 85 today. Diana Mihajlova met the fit and active octogenarian, who has been a "pal" of our company for a decade, in his home town of Budapest. Here is part one of her birthday report.

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Benko at 85 

By Diana Mihajlova

Some time ago, Pal Benko and I had arranged a meeting for an interview and a photo session, but prolonged rainy days, made us to postpone it. When, on the occasion of the "Polgar Chess Day", I suggested another meeting in the hope that this time the weather would be on our side, he retorted: "Never mind the bad weather, let’s hope I will be still around!" At 85, his playful and nonchalant manner is captivating, as it was throughout his life. A life riddled with challenges of horrific kind since his earliest years. But, his stamina, intelligence and inner resources always kept him a step ahead.

Pal Benko and Diana Mihajlova

Recently, on a sunny, summer afternoon, I was regaled with the company of the living legend. Scrolling around the old Budapest on the Royal Castle’s grounds, a long, inspiring conversation with Pal Benko took me back to the glorious chess era of the grandees that were shaping chess history in the 1950s and 60s: Fischer, Reshevsky, Botvinnik, Keres, Petrosian, Tal, Smyslov, Najdorf, Korchnoi, Spassky, Geller, Portisch, Averbach, Taimanov, Gligoric, Larsen… they were all his friends and opponents at the chessboard. 

Throughout our walk, he would enthusiastically give me glimpses into the Hungarian history connected to the monuments that we were passing by in Buda, the old, medieval town of Budapest.

In front of the statue of St Stephen (St Istvan),
the canonized king of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary

Elegant, in summary blue and white chequered jacket and blue trousers, with jet-black hair only gently starting to grey, confident, smiling, cracking jokes, he is oozing vitality. Climbing the castle’s steep stairs I instinctively lent a supporting arm, when he stopped and looked at me curiously: “You don’t trust my chess muscles? Let me help you!

Benko's arm wrestling hobby, where he beat many a younger opponent, is well known among his friends. Browsing through his biography, I came across the following amusing incident: during a tournament in Bucharest, he took time off at a pool side in the company of a young lady. There he was provoked and battled off a love rival. Later on, a headline in the local daily papers took him by surprise when he learnt who was his victim: "Chess master beats up professional boxer".

One should better trust the chess muscles

Benko learnt to play chess, relatively late, when he was ten years old. He received initial instructions from his father, but he was largely self-thought, building up on the secrets of the game by playing in the parks. A book of 350 Capablanca games was the first he ever studied. By then he had already won club and master tournaments. It was during the war, when prizes consisting of bacon and flower were very welcome.

The war atrocities and paradoxes of the Hungarian politics have left indelible marks on Benko’s life. ‘When I was 16 they took me to the army. I was made to dig ditches somewhere on the Austrian border. I deserted and managed to return home only to find that my father and brother were no longer there. They were shipped to Russia as ‘prisoners of war’. Prisoners of war!? They were not even soldiers! Those were the times then. One could end up as a prisoner for any reason at any time. They never saw my mother again, because during their captivity in Russia, she died. My father was let out after a year and a half and soon afterwards he defected to the USA.’ 

Benko followed suit, but not before he tasted on his own skin the absurdities of the communist regime of his native Hungary.

Benko at the castle wall with Danube and the Parliament in the background

He had made a name as one of the best Hungarian chess players. In 1948 he won the national championship and throughout the mid-50’ he was second strongest in his country, after Laszlo Szabo. But an ill-conceived attempt to escape to the USA, while playing a tournament in the East Germany in the 1952, was his downfall or his ‘dark years’ as he calls them in his autobiography. He was taken back to Budapest and imprisoned in a concentration camp. For a year and a half he had no contact with anyone from the outside world. His family thought that had had escaped to the USA, while he was lingering in a basement with no daylight, endless interrogations and hardly any food. His release came only with Stalin’s death. His desire to reach the USA grew stronger than ever.

Benko signing my cherished copy of his award winning autobiography

There are still some copies of this 2003 book by Siles Press available.
Here is a review by Prof. Prof. Nagesh Havanur

For a while, he was a "black sheep" and denied participation at international tournaments. It took some time before he was deemed to have "learned his lesson", and allowed to play at important tournaments.

If his first attempt to escape proved naïve, he was determined to prepare carefully his second. With his reliability slowly reinstated, he was given opportunities to play abroad. First the Interzonal in Ireland, then the World Student Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland. He chose Reykjavik as his port of escape. In 1957 the US Embassy in Reykjavik welcomed his request to defect to the USA. They even arranged a press conference for him to explain why he did not want to return to Hungary. Obviously, he served their political agenda. In October of the same year, he reached New York.

The above congratulation puzzles which Pal Benko sent us for the 25th anniversary of ChessBase. As you doubtlessly see, they spell out the letters "CB 25 PB" – for ChessBase, 25, Pal Benko. Each position is a clever little mate, some not so easy to solve. You will find each position on a full board together with the solutions on this page.

We will be celebrating Pal Benko's jubilee 85th year with more articles, but today, in the name of all our readers, we express our warmest wishes for many more Benko puzzles!

Happy Birthday, Pal Benko!

– Part two will follow soon –

A former university lecturer in Romance philology, she is currently a painter as well as a chess journalist, and reports regularly from the international tournament scene.


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